Ukraine ordered the fighters to save their lives – and said their mission to link Russian forces was over – but did not call the convoy of soldiers leaving the plant a surrender. The militants face an uncertain fate: Ukraine says it hopes to exchange prisoners, but Russia promises to prosecute at least some of them for war crimes.
It is unclear how many fighters remain in the stronghold, the last Ukraine in the city, which is now largely destroyed. Both sides are trying to shape the story and win propaganda victories in one of the most important battles of the war.
A spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Major General Igor Kanashenkov, said on Wednesday that 959 Ukrainian servicemen had left the Avozstal plant since they began leaving on Monday. At one point, officials estimated the number of fighters hiding in the plant’s sprawling network of tunnels and bunkers at 2,000.
The figures, if confirmed, suggest that Moscow may be minutes away from claiming that all of Mariupol has fallen. That would be an incentive for Russian President Vladimir Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.
But another setback was imminent: Sweden and Finland on Wednesday formally applied to join NATO’s military alliance, due to security concerns over the Russian invasion. Putin launched the invasion on February 24, he said, in a bid to curb NATO enlargement, but saw that the strategy had the opposite effect.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed the applications, which now have to weigh 30 member countries.
In addition to symbolic value, gaining full control of Mariupol would also allow Russia to deploy forces elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial center that the Kremlin is now seeking to seize. It will also give Russia an intact land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, while depriving Ukraine of a vital port.
For several months, soldiers defended the plant, but on Tuesday, Ukraine’s defense minister said he had given a new order to the fighters to “save their lives.”
“Ukraine needs them. That’s the main thing,” said Alexei Reznikov.
What will happen to the fighters now is unclear. At least some of them were taken to a former colony in Russian-backed separatist-held territory. Ukraine says it hopes they can be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, and that negotiations are delicate and time-consuming.
But Moscow is increasingly calling for a trial of the Ukrainian military. Russia’s main federal investigative body has said it intends to question the military to “identify nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians. Russia’s chief prosecutor also asked the country’s Supreme Court to recognize the Azov Regiment as a terrorist organization. The regiment has its roots in the far right.
The Russian parliament planned to pass a resolution on Wednesday to prevent the exchange of fighters of the Azov Regiment, Russian news agencies reported.
Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine Anna Malyar said that negotiations on the release of fighters are ongoing, as well as plans to withdraw others who are still in the factory. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said that the evacuation “delayed the most influential international mediators.”
Mariupol has been a target of Russia since the beginning of the invasion. The city was largely destroyed by constant bombing, and Ukraine says more than 20,000 civilians have been killed. But the fighters of the metallurgical plant survived, as the whole city came under Russian occupation.
The UK Ministry of Defense in its daily intelligence report on Wednesday said that the defense of Mariupol by Ukraine “inflicted heavy losses on Russian forces.”
More than 260 Ukrainian fighters – some of them seriously wounded and taken away on stretchers – left the ruins of the Azovstal plant on Monday and handed over to Russian troops, who stroked them and took them away by bus.
Others were taken out on Tuesday. It was observed that seven buses with an unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers arrived at the former colony in the town of Olenivka, about 88 kilometers (55 miles) north of Mariupol.
It was impossible to confirm the total number of fighters brought to Olenivka and their legal status. While Mariupol and Alenivka are officially part of the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine, Olenovka has been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and is part of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic. Prior to the rebels’ capture, the 120-strong penal colony was a high-security facility designed to hold prisoners convicted of serious crimes.
Footage taken by the Associated Press shows that the column was accompanied by military equipment with the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign, when Soviet flags were waved on poles along the road. About two dozen Ukrainian fighters were spotted in one of the buses.
When its capture is completed, Mariupol will become the largest city taken by Moscow troops. During the siege, Russian troops carried out deadly air strikes on the maternity hospital and theater, where civilians took refuge. About 600 people could have been killed in the theater.
The Commissioner for Human Rights of Ukraine said that the Russian military also detained more than 3,000 civilians in Mariupol in another former colony near Alenovka. Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmila Dzyanisava said most civilians were detained for a month, but those considered “particularly unreliable”, including ex-servicemen and police, were detained for two months. Among the detained are about 30 volunteers who were delivering humanitarian goods to Mariupol when it was under blockade, she said.
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